The vice-chancellor’s announcement has been met with criticism from leading figures in the independent school sectorLouis Ashworth/Varsity

Private schools must brace themselves for fewer Oxbridge offers, the vice-chancellor has warned.

In an interview with The Times, Professor Stephen Toope said that top universities like Cambridge and Oxford should warn independent schools that they will see offers fall and their “premium” will reduce.

He also said Cambridge might introduce figures on grammar school intake and those who are eligible for free school meals.

Toope suggested that focusing only on state school to private school intake ratio cannot wholly determine the socio-economic background of students.

The vice-chancellor said: “we’re [reducing private school intake] by welcoming others, not by telling those people we don’t want you."

Individual students who are talented, we would want them, but they’re going to be competing against an even-larger pool because there are more students coming from state schools who are seeing a potential place for themselves at Cambridge or Oxford or other Russell Group universities”.

The vice-chancellor’s announcement has been met with criticism from leading figures in the independent school sector.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and ex headmaster of Harrow, criticised using school type as “an indicator of socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage”.

He continued, “many pupils in state schools come from high-income homes and many pupils attending independent schools receive means-tested bursaries."

Contextual admissions are only a sensible part of the selection process if they are applied properly. It is a shame that this debate is so often presented as independent versus state”.

MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education select committee, has suggested that the current measures don’t go far enough. He said that the intention of Cambridge to reduce private school intake only “scratched the surface” in improving social mobility.

“There is clearly not a level playing field and very little has been done. We need to make sure there’s meritocracy - at the moment it’s not.”

Last September, Cambridge University’s private school intake was at 28% when nationally only 7% of school children are privately educated. Though this is an improvement from 29.4% in 2020 and 31.3% the year before that, it falls short of the 2020 benchmark of 24% for Cambridge and 24.5% for Oxford (2020), set unofficially by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.


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Toope, however, said that this was “real progress”.

“I’m not a big fan of social engineering projects to try and force people to change. What we are seeing happen already is people understanding the premium to go to some schools may not be as significant as it once was. That’s something that will continue to change over time.”

The vice-chancellor added: “We don’t address all these problems simply by having more people coming from state schools. We’re much more interested in looking at deprivation and free school meals data, which we think gives us a better picture”.

On whether grammar schools should be included in the intake figures, Toope said, “It would put pressure on us. If all we’re doing is substituting more grammar school students for students from independent schools, that’s not really accomplishing the widening participation goals.”